September 19th, 2017

About fifteen years ago, I had the idea to write a comic script about a shapeshifting superhero, and in particular to have that superhero be trans. Perhaps they could be one gender in their secret identity, and another as their superhero identity?

Thankfully, a trans friend quickly persuaded me that this would be a really, really, really bad idea and that I should instead not do that, and do literally anything else instead, because I am a cis man, and I’d have ended up writing the most grossly offensive thing possible, in the name of “dealing with the issues” and performative allyship.

However, I’ve been very surprised that in the intervening years, especially with gender being an increasingly controversial topic, no-one in the superhero comics world has decided to do exactly that, or something very like it. It’s all too easy to imagine the angry twitterstorms as some cis man called Mark or Nick attacks all the “trolls” who “abuse” him by asking him “why are you doing this bad thing?”

Thankfully, we now have the first serious attempt to present a trans superhero, and rather than being that kind of hateful pseudo-wokeness, it’s actually rather good.

Before going any further with this review, I should point out that I know most of the creative team on this comic — I am various levels of friendly-at-least-on-the-Internet with writer Abigail Brady, editor James Hunt, and letterer Aditya Bidakar, and I’ve chatted with line artist Steve Horry in Facebook groups in the past though we don’t know each other (I don’t, as far as I know, know colourist David Cooper at all). I got a Transrealities promo T-shirt a full year before the comic even came out, having been impressed by a digital ashcan. So take what follows with a grain of salt.

But I honestly think Transrealities, at least the two issues that have been released so far (the first issue as a physical copy at last year’s Thought Bubble, the second digital-only for now) is as impressive a debut comic as one could hope for. The basic premise is a simple one — the shape-shifting superheroine Whoever (real name Liz Cartwright ) is a closeted trans woman who has not come out even to her teammates. However, when she gets involved in a fight against a villain who can change reality, she ends up in an alternate timestream, confronted by a version of herself who has not transitioned — a version who also lost his superpowers at around the same time Liz transitioned in her own reality.

(I say “his” here, because it’s not been made clear in the comic whether Edward, the alternate-universe version of Liz, is trans himself, but the implications are that he isn’t)

The result, as might be expected, makes heavy play of the parallels between the tropes of superhero comics and the experiences of trans people:

But focussing too much on that theme in this review would possibly give the incorrect impression that this is some kind of heavy issue-of-the-week story, especially given that this is an independently-published comic. And while there would be nothing wrong with that, that’s not what Transrealities is trying to do. This a comic written because Abigail Brady wanted a comic about people like her and her friends, but it’s also a superhero comic that revels in the conventions of the genre — fight scenes, superheroes mistaking other heroes for villains, time travel, superhero teams and all. It’s very, very hard for me, as a cis man, to talk about something that has being trans as a dominant theme without presenting it as in some way about “the trans issue”, but this isn’t. It’s a comic about a trans person, which takes as read that trans people are who they say they are, and that its audience will agree with that, rather than relitigating arguments that should have been won decades ago.

This is a comic that belongs in some ways to the pop-deconstructionist strand to which comics like The Wicked and the Divine belong — a comparison that’s bound to come up because many people point out the similarities between Steve Horry’s art and Jamie McKelvie’s (though personally I think Horry’s clear lines and expressive faces owe at least as much to Kevin Maguire) — but it’s not imitating the dense super-referentiality of Gillen’s writing, but something simpler, allowing the genre conventions to tell a simple, fun, story, while the main character’s dilemma (does she reveal the truth about herself to her alternate version and his wife, mother, and team-mates? Can she gain their trust to fight the monster that’s after them without coming out to them?) gives it the emotional impact it needs.

What it reminds me of, more than anything, are the more straightforward early issues of some of the Seven Soldiers minis — this is very like the early parts of Zatanna, Bulleteer and Manhattan Guardian, the parts that were doing pop superheroics rather than tying into a larger metanarrative.

Transrealities isn’t — so far — quite up to the level of those comics, though I don’t absolutely rule out the possibility of it getting there by the end of the five-issue miniseries. It’s certainly not as referentially dense. But the fact that I feel comfortable comparing this to comics that I count among my very favourite comics of all time (and which I liked enough to write a book about), when it’s a first effort by an independent, self-funded, team of creators, is quite a feat.

I could, should I choose, find some aspects of the comic which are less than perfect and pick them apart — the odd panel with somewhat stiff posing, the odd slightly jarring transition — but that would be to miss the point. This is a fun, clever, moving superhero comic, written as a comic rather than as a pitch for a series of films, and which is emphatically on the side of good.

In particular, Abigail Brady will, if she continues to write this well, be one of the major stars of the medium in a decade or so. Get in on the ground floor, and buy the first two issues of Transrealities from Comixology — issue one is only 69p, and issue two the more-than-reasonable £1.49.

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